Authors@Google – David Kilcullen

In the following talk given at Google, David Kilcullen discusses the primary points within his book, The Accidental Guerrilla. His 25 minute presentation is followed by a 40 minute Q&A with our notes posted below.

The title of his book refers to members of the general populace that do not inherently hate the West but have participated in an insurgency because of social norms, family ties, or economic reasons. 90-95 percent of the combatants that the U.S. has fought in the War on Terror consist of these “accidental guerrillas.”

Specifically, a study done on U.S. detainees in Iraq in 2007 revealed 70% were fighting U.S. forces for economic reasons, 20% were from a dispossessed group like the Saddam regime loyalists, and less than 10% had religious or ideological motivations.

The strategy in Iraq consisted of isolating the incredibly small minority of fighters that were irreconcilable while winning over the vast majority that were fighting mainly as a matter of circumstances.

There are four stages to an insurgency:

  1. Infection – Terrorist groups tend to be a toxic byproduct of societal breakdown and can use a lack of institutional order to gain control and promote their interests.
  2. Contagion – Terrorist groups seek to spread their influence globally once they have consolidated their power position.
  3. Intervention – Western or regional powers attempt to deal directly with the threat, frequently resulting in invasion.
  4. Rejection – Through ineffective coercion or targeting of the general population by the West, resistance solidifies against the outsider.

Kilcullen’s main policy prescription is that the U.S. should not invade countries because of terrorist movements. U.S. efforts must be channeled through local partners.

Western organizations design operations or strategies, then construct public relations campaigns and messages to gain public support. In contrast, the Taliban and al-Qaeda start with the message, then pursue operations that convey their message. This is the primary reason why al-Qaeda has outperformed the West in promoting their cause. With the decentralization of media and the rise of social media, the ability of governments to interject their message into the public’s perception has become increasingly difficult.

An aid project that focused on building and distributing hydroelectric power generators to Afghan villages initially met serious complications as the Taliban destroyed or stole them. These challenges were overcome by charging a nominal fee for the generators. The fees were highly subsidized and specifically set so that it would take several villagers to purchase one. With the introduction of prices, villages took ownership of the generators and resisted any attempts by the Taliban to destroy or procure them.

Military power does not translate into more optimistic prospects for villages; it only provides a foundation for security.

The American and British militaries have different pathologies with regards to counterinsurgency. The U.S. military tends to rapidly adapt but quickly forgets lessons learned once the conflict has ended, choosing to focus on conventional warfare. The British, on the other hand, have a large degree of experience in peacekeeping and believe that experience will readily translate to counterinsurgency, which it does not.

Denmark has proven itself to be highly capable at counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

There has been a substantial movement towards language and regional studies in the United States. However, the best gains at interfacing with the populace have been from a partnering model. U.S. units would patrol with local units that have an indispensable amount of local knowledge.

There are similarities and differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq was predominantly urban whereas Afghanistan is mainly rural. Iraq was also highly sectarian; Afghanistan is more of a classic insurgency. Our focus has been on targeting al-Qaeda and insurgency leaders instead of focusing on the populace, prolonging both conflicts. While techniques may be different, the principle strategy is the same. Afghanistan also has a serious narcotics problem that must be dealt with. Seeds of Terror discusses the poppy trade of Afghanistan at length.

The defeat of the Taliban in 2001 did not result from air power coupled with Special Forces, but from creating partnerships with locals allowing them to topple the Taliban. Popular perception within Afghanistan does not highlight American involvement; Afghans take credit for throwing out the Taliban themselves.

Decades under an authoritarian regime has created a substantial amount of distrust of the government in Iraq by the populace. Changing these perceptions and instilling democracy will take time.

Popular angst towards the Pakistani government in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) was not initially addressed by the United States, most of the military aid given to Pakistan went to conventional war fighting capabilities instead. Anti-Western attitudes are extremely prevalent as a result of Western powers bombing the area consistently every decade for over a century. These same attitudes exist throughout Pakistan and will make any counterinsurgency efforts extremely difficult. If the state of Pakistan fails, it will dwarf any other problem policy makers are currently facing.

Al-Qaeda strategy has consisted mostly of sending small organizations to remote locations and provoking the United States to intervene, repeating this process until resources and the political will within the United States has been completely spent. Ultimately, the United States will have no choice but to withdraw completely from the Middle East.

India has had a lot of influence in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan to reduce the influence of both the Taliban and Pakistan in the region. Though India has other priorities such as the global economy, the potential instability of Pakistan could escalate tensions in the region.

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